Posted tagged ‘disciplines’

How specialised is your university?

November 27, 2012

What makes a university a university? A few years ago I had this discussion with a group of academics, and two of them suggested that, in order to be a legitimate university, an institution had to address a number of academic subject areas, which would have to include history and mathematics. At the time I was President of Dublin City University, and while we had a School of Mathematical Sciences, we didn’t cover history. Now I am Principal of Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, and we have neither. Does this mean we aren’t a legitimate university?

But while you’re grappling with that, things can get much narrower still. The newest kid on the university block in the United Kingdom is what will be known as the University of Law (formerly the College of Law). As the name suggests, this is a one-subject university, covering only law. All its courses are for practising or aspiring lawyers, and while some of these courses are offered at a postgraduate level, there are no research degrees, and no particular evidence of a research culture amongst staff.

So then, is the University of Law a university? Yes, say the authorities – by granting it university status. And moreover, waiting off-stage is the firm Montagu Private Equity. If their takeover succeeds, the University of Law will be a for-profit undertaking.

It is clearly not my intention to suggest that having a rich subject mix covering all traditional disciplines is necessary to make anyone a university. I believe that the future of higher education will involve much more in the way of institutional specialisation. But the essence of modern academic life lies in trans-disciplinary knowledge and discovery, and it is hard to see how a single-issue college can cover that. It is unlikely that the college intends to be a player in new analysis and knowledge generation, either.

I am not doubting the value of the University of Law, or the quality of what it does. I used to work with them quite closely when I was Dean of the University of Hull Law School in the 1990s. But I am doubting whether it is a university, and I find it difficult to see what benefit is derived by anyone from this change of status. What this change does do, however, is to make it much more difficult to see what meaningful criteria, if any, should govern the granting of university status. Time will tell, perhaps.

A post-disciplinary academy?

October 14, 2010

It has been my view for some time that attachment to the traditional disciplines is making it harder for universities to adapt to changing circumstances. Most universities organise themselves in accordance with disciplinary boundaries that, in the case of the humanities, go back to the Middle Ages, and in the case of engineering and science, to the 19th century.

Now, in a recent issue of the US journal Chronicle of Higher Education where a number of prominent thinkers were asked to describe ‘the defining idea of the coming decade’, Professor Elaine Ecklund of Rice University’s Institute for Urban Research suggests that it might be necessary to abandon disciplines in order to ‘think beyond old boundaries’. She points out that the problems universities are asked to help solve all tend to lie between disciplines; but universities, organised into disciplines that stay shielded from others often for budgetary reasons, can find it hard to embrace interdisciplinary methodology. Their work is often determined and assessed by peer review panels, which are overwhelmingly established on disciplinary lines.

In fact the academic attachment to disciplines is far-reaching. As people progress in their careers, the discipline they are in tends to determine working methods and even personal friendships. Often a lecturer will feel that their primary allegiance is to their discipline, with the university often coming a rather poor second. Breaking down this particular order would be very difficult and could meet very significant resistance; but it may well need to be done. But if it is done, it may fundamentally alter the nature and atmosphere of the university.

I think that change is necessary, but it will fail unless it is properly prepared and unless academic consent is secured along the way. All of this should be part of a broader campaign for universities to regain society’s trust and confidence.

Academic themes

August 5, 2009

At a recent diplomatic reception that I attended a senior public servant offered the following comment to me: ‘You guys [and I think he meant academics] are so caught up in your abstract studies and disciplines that you can’t really say anything useful to the rest of us.’ Well, of course I didn’t agree with him, but whether his comment had any merit isn’t my point here. Rather, I wonder whether perhaps we need to make it more obvious that we do concern ourselves not just with interesting but obscure abstractions, but also with precisely the issues that will determine economic prosperity and social stability.

It has seemed to me for some time that society is clustering its concerns into a number of themes. You can work out your own, but I would identify the key themes as (i) health, (ii) security, (iii) transport and communications, (iv) globalisation and trade, and (v) environmental sustainability. All of these are both sources of anxiety and also items producing political dissatisfaction. We do not think that our political leaders have a grip on them, and so we despair of our leaders and simultaneously worry some more. And perhaps, when we look at our universities and what they are working on, we don’t always identify the connection with our general themes.

Partly because of this, it has been my view that universities should present their ‘shop windows’ in a more thematic way, with less of an emphasis on traditional Faculty structures (law, economics, physics, mechanical engineering, and so forth), and more on issues of general social concern. This can also help to drive interdisciplinarity, which has become academically important.

Since 2001 DCU has presented its strategic priorities in a thematic way, and has sought to present its strategy in terms of thematic projects. Whether this can be done easily is another matter, but I believe it to be important to communicate our priorities in this way. If we say, for example, that we are bringing together teams of academics to address key health issues, this makes a case to the public that is easier to grasp than if we say we are building up a School of Biotechnology.

I am not suggesting that (possibly transient) themes should replace disciplines in academic formation, but rather that they should drive strategic interactions between those disciplines, and in doing so should reassure the public that what we do will benefit all.